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Susan’s Bookshelves: The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

In 1990, a Crime Writers’ Association poll declared Josephine Tey’s 1948 novel one of the hundred best crime novels of all time. It’s hard to disagree – although maybe it’s a silly concept because no one has read every single crime novel ever written. And a tremendous number of fine crime novels have been published since 1990.

Nonetheless The Franchise Affair has long been a favourite of mine. I’ve read it several times so I know more or less where it’s going although, inevitably, one forgets the details between re-reads. The interesting thing, coming back to it now, is that, 75 years after it was first published, it still holds the attention to the end first, because Tey writes so beautifully; second, because her characterisation is intriguing; and third, because she is very good at understated tension.

Two women, an elderly mother and her middle-aged daughter, are accused of kidnapping and beating a teenage girl in their country house. Solicitor, Robert Blair, from whose point of view the story is predominantly presented, takes on their case because he is totally convinced of their innocence. And yet the girl is able to describe the women and their house with total accuracy so how could she be lying? If you haven’t read it before there’s a jolly good plot waiting for you to explore although I don’t find the final page convincing.

Marion Sharpe is gypsy-like in appearance and has unconscious sexual allure so that Robert gradually becomes enamoured. Even Nevil, his rather casual nephew – who “works” in the business – visits the Franchise more often than he need. Mrs Sharpe is entertainingly direct to the point of rudeness, intelligently perceptive and no sufferer of fools. Tey, evidently chose their surname with care.

In 2023 I’m struck too by the almost instant decision by Robert, the local police and Scotland Yard that these women are almost certainly innocent because of their social class. I suspect today the opposite might be true?  But, they’re regarded with suspicion locally because they don’t mix with the community and, of course, once the tabloid press gets hold of the story …

This enjoyable novel made an excellent TV series in 1998 with Patrick Malahide as Robert, a very young Alex Jennings as Nevil and Rosalie Crutchley unforgettable as the redoubtable Mrs Sharpe. Interestingly, it was Crutchley’s second go, so to speak, because she’d played Marion Sharpe in an earlier, 1962, version for TV. It was always a novel which cried out for dramatisation. There was a film, starring Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray, in 1951 when the novel was only three years old.

Some things date in a bad way and some things, although full of 1948 detail, stand the test of time with aplomb. This novel is one of them.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Persuasion by Jane Austen

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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